Music » Classical

Can the Pipes Prevail?



At the east end of Massachusetts Avenue, the offices of Goulding and Wood sit ensconced among many sturdy, century-old brick warehouses. The handsome sign with gold lettering could easily evoke an English barrister's office, as could the firm's name. But visitors to Goulding and Wood won't find any starched suits behind mahogany desks or shelves groaning from all those volumes of case law. Instead, we get titanic pipes of lead and tin alloys in various stages of completion, table saws at bewildering angles, pallets stacked like Jenga blocks, and pitched ceilings to accommodate huge conduits 30 feet above the floor. Goulding and Wood is Indianapolis' own maker of organs, one of only a handful left, operating in a building that has housed an organ manufactory since 1968. When former occupant Holloway Company closed in 1980, Goulding and Wood almost immediately took over, according to Brandon Woods, Vice President of the company.

Goulding and Wood's pipe organ builders work behind this door on Massachusetts Avenue. - JONATHAN MCAFEE
  • Jonathan McAfee
  • Goulding and Wood's pipe organ builders work behind this door on Massachusetts Avenue.

This part of town wasn't always so fashionable. Woods recalls, "We used to apologize to clients when they came here to visit. 'Look, the organ business is not a high profit margin industry; we had to keep our costs down, and that's why we're in this red light district.' And now, people roll in here and, 'Oh, no wonder these organs are expensive.'" But Woods would be the first to volunteer that Goulding and Wood employees can hardly afford a condo in the neighborhood these days. Yes, organs are expensive; the one that G&W was finishing at the time of my interview cost $1.3 million. But the profit margin is unlikely to be more than 8-10 percent -- not a lot. "Our accountant keeps telling us, 'You guys need to get that profit margin more at 30-35 percent. Well, that's right if you're putting stuff on the shelves at Target," Woods says, "but we don't have that luxury."

A Decline in Demand

At its humming laboratory, Goulding and Wood has created approximately 50 pipe organs in its 33 years in existence -- less than two a year. The process of building an organ is painstaking. A recent commission, an Episcopal church in Lexington for which they were putting the finishing touches during my interview, began over a year earlier. And the array of churches served continues to shrink. Fewer church communities perceive organs as an essential part of the liturgy; the widely proliferating non-denominational churches rarely use a pipe organ in their music programs. They prefer contemporary praise bands for Sunday services.

The Episcopal Church of the USA (ECUSA) remains a denomination steadfastly committed to the pipe organ, providing Goulding and Wood with a sizable part of its business. While an Episcopal church nearly always has a pipe organ (and often a very good one), that doesn't translate to high exposure for the King of the Instruments. "Weddings. Sunday morning. Funerals," acknowledges Frank Boles, organist and director of music at St. Paul's Episcopal on the north side. "That's where we're getting the majority of people hearing the organ. Concerts are down here" -- holding his hand close to the ground -- "and it's usually the lowest crowd, and that's where your challenge is." I didn't really need to ask Boles if it's true that the pipe organ is tethered to the church. He implied it, as did every other organist I interviewed in central Indiana. There's no way around it. It is nearly impossible to relocate one of these mammoths, the largest instrument in the Western musical tradition. When they construct a new building, younger churches typically leave out the organ altogether.

All of Indy's classically trained organists know their instrument's long-standing role in liturgy, because they have to: playing in churches is typically their bread and butter. But only a few can expound at length on the instrument's mechanics. Back among the workbenches at Goulding and Wood sits a man who is both a musician and a wonk. David Sims has a Masters of Music in Organ Performance from Indiana University and the role of director of music at North Christian Church in Columbus (the landmark "oilcan" church), but his work as a voicing technician remains his primary, full-time job.

"My on-campus study job was to help the organ curator at IU take care of all [13] organs," Sims notes. "The retired founder of Goulding and Wood, Tom Wood ... his retirement job was to be curator of the organs ... and I would help him. And I loved it." After graduation, at the suggestion of Wood, the firm found a spot for Sims in its workshop.

Despite the pipe organ's receding role in the church, both Woods and Sims are sanguine about the future of the manufacturing industry.

"There have been a lot of organ companies that have closed in the last 30 years. But the ones that are left are all really good, because that's where the demand is," Sims says. "The electronic organs have become very good as well, and so churches that would buy a cheap pipe organ are now buying an electronic organ. And so that leaves the pipe organ market for people who really do it right." Obviously a contrarian could conjure the "elitist" boogeyman, but Sims defends, "It's very homespun. We're some of the few people that actually build things anymore."

The Best Organs in Town

Being surrounded by the innards of a pipe organ then prompted me to survey around town to get local musicians' perspectives on the finished product -- the best pipe organs in metro Indianapolis. While responses varied greatly, a few names emerged time and again: Boles' mighty Casavant at St. Paul's Episcopal, the Goulding and Wood at St. Luke's UMC (choice number one when organ festivals come to town), and the 1968 Aeolian-Skinner at Second Presbyterian are among the most common. Zion Evangelical United Church of Christ has a solid Kimball organ with a Casavant antiphonal, carefully restored fifteen years ago. All Souls Unitarian and All Saints Episcopal win accolades for the sensitivity of the placement of the organs, maximizing their acoustics. St. John the Evangelist has a good Goulding and Wood Opus 14, perhaps the best among the Catholic churches in the region.

The Scottish Rite Cathedral hosts the city's only organ with five manuals (keyboard), an E.M. Skinner. Bob Schilling, retired Minister of Worship and the Arts at North United Methodist Church, stated that the installation is problematic: "It's buried in a chamber up in the ceiling. It's very muffled, but it's a wonderful instrument and it is maintained, so it's quite playable."

This Taylor and Boody organ, left, perches - above the congregation in the gallery of Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral. St. Paul's Episcopal Church features a Casavant organ. - ERIC MCAFEE / ST. PAUL'S EPISCOPAL CHURCH
  • Eric McAfee / St. Paul's Episcopal church
  • This Taylor and Boody organ, left, perchesabove the congregation in the gallery of Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral. St. Paul's Episcopal Church features a Casavant organ.

But the one that receives enthusiastic praise from all but one of my interviewees is the Taylor and Boody in the gallery of Christ Church Cathedral. Tom Nichols of St. Luke's Catholic Church says, "There's nothing else like it in town, as far as an authentic instrument ... that's almost a replica of the organs that were popular in the time of Bach. It's the north German tradition. It even has the capability of being winded manually by people, as all organs were back in the day, a place where you can hold on to the bellows."

The Need for a Next Generation

Indianapolis has its share of remarkable instruments. Nonetheless, Schilling and Boles recognized that the organ's prominence would fade even further if it weren't for the tireless efforts of the American Guild of Organists (AGO), whose Indianapolis chapter is particularly active. This same guild recognizes that, whether or not it's accurate, the pipe organ culture seems remote, fussy, intimidating and unapproachable to many. Young people in particular are apt to associate this instrument with older generations, who grew up at a time when seeing organs in churches was the norm rather than the exception. Schilling points to the AGO's efforts to reach out to young piano players through its Organ Encounters series.

This Letourneau tracker organ can be found in the small chapel of North United Methodist Church. - ERIC MCAFEE
  • Eric McAfee
  • This Letourneau tracker organ can be found in the small chapel of North United Methodist Church.

At a national level, only a few prominent organists have successfully broken into what might be called mainstream recognition. Marko Petričić, music associate at Northminster Presbyterian Church, referenced Chelsea Chen, an organist-in-residence at a New York church and concert artist, who performed last year at East 91st Christian Church. According to Petričić, the Julliard-trained Chen "taps into pop culture and meets [the audience] halfway and tries to pull them along by relating to them," with improvisations using Super Mario videogame music and other contemporary themes. Meanwhile, the young iconoclast Cameron Carpenter (also Julliard-trained), who performed at the Palladium last March, draws big crowds by blurring the boundary between highbrow and lowbrow in his performances. But he tours with an electric organ, which subjects him to a great deal of criticism from the pipe organ purists.

From manufacturers to musicians, the pipe organ community's members offer guarded optimism about their instrument's long-term relevance. If the pipe organ recedes further, it won't be because its biggest proponents raised the white flag. They're working hard, because though their ranks may be small, fans of pipe organs are passionate about its possibilities. Tiantian Liang, organist at All Souls Unitarian, splits her time between the organ and piano, but the former offers something special. "After a chamber music or piano solo recital, I just feel I'm still a soloist. But after an organ recital, I feel like I'm the conductor and also the orchestra, because I was controlling all the sound," says Liang. "I feel like I'm creating whatever is in my imagination."

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